Te Po - review
A New Zealand masterpiece in the Auckland and Wellington arts festivals.
George Henare comes out on stage in a ridiculous green jacket and does karaoke. There’s a seagull, and a very large fish, and another animal, one of the most beautiful you may ever see on a stage. It would be a cruel spoiler to reveal what it is, and besides, I want to rack up as many reasons as possible why you should see this show, because it’s a masterpiece.
So, karaoke and large animals. Playwright and actor Carl Bland calls it a comedy about grief. The measure of that is a soliloquy at the end, which is about God and the Virgin Mary, and is simultaneously hilarious and riven with fury and loss. And somehow it channels your empathy, your connection to grief, through the experience of God (in this telling a particularly ludicrous character), and Mary (who is, well, another spoiler avoided: not your usual Mary) and your understanding of the story of the death of Jesus.
Like the rest of the play, it doesn’t really seem possible. And yet it is. That’s great theatre, right there. When the impossible works, right in front of you, and it clambers right into your heart.
That’s great theatre, right there. When the impossible works, right in front of you, and it clambers right into your heart.
This is a play about Bruce Mason, the playwright, who has gone missing. It’s got three main characters, who are all drawn from Mason’s plays, although they do not all know that.
It’s about fiction and fact, and it connects the place from which a writer summons a world with te po, the night from which Maui made the day. It’s about a man who wants to live outside time, because he cannot bear that he has lost his wife, and believes it is time that separates him from her. It’s slapstick, and a homage to Mason, who never wrote a slapstick word in his life. It’s absurdist, and therefore upsets the conventions of stagecraft and art and life – and police procedurals, for that matter. It’s hootingly funny and it’s a caterwaul of grief.
I’ve never seen George Henare better. Superficially, his character is a blind old man who says he knew Mason as a child and now has “an appointment with him”. He’s the lifeforce in the play, its mauri; and perhaps, on Takapuna beach, he was Mason’s first muse; and of course he is death itself; and he’s also a ridiculous practical joker.
Much of his dialogue is in Maori, and that gives Henare a mainline to the heart of the character. I don’t speak te reo and I know I missed a level of understanding because of it, but the mauri is so strong in Henare, he envelops you in its power. That’s very exciting.
Andrew Grainger is also on song. What he’s especially good at, as Auckland audiences will know, is making the coarse delicate. Finding the soul of the thug. His character this time is not a thug but he is a wise oaf: a police inspector who has come to search for the missing playwright without knowing anything about who he is.
Grainger nails it with impeccable comic timing, a subtle but sure grasp of the absurd, a mean moustache and traces of a deliciously middle-class English accent: very Bruce Masonish.
And then there is Carl Bland himself, playing the broken man at the heart of the story. Bland wrote this play out of the pain of his own experience of grief, and he finds the strength and skill here to present incomprehensible suffering with a devastating simplicity.
Andrew Foster’s set is witty, surprising and extremely lovely, and all the other elements – music and sound design by John Gibson, lighting by Nik Janiurek, costumes by Elizabeth Whiting, and those wonderful animal puppets by Main Reactor, operated by Ella Becroft – chime in brilliantly. Director Ben Crowder put all this together and he should be massively proud.
Te Po: I thought it was flawless. Full of ideas and never dull, complicated and never confusing, unafraid to mix stupid jokes with very sly subversion, paced with a fleet-footed elegance, laced with grief and hilarious to the end, charming even as it takes us to the edge of the abyss, and then does its best to rescue us from it.
Main image: playwright and actor Carl Bland (seated) with director Ben Crowder and one of the animal puppets. Photographed exclusively for Metro by Stephen Langdon.